Preach God’s Word, Not That Of The Silly Vassal

Megan Basham caused a stir a few weeks ago with her article exposing the Federal Government’s use of Evangelical influencers to spread COVID talking points. In interviews with multiple Evangelical Thought Leaders, National Institute of Health Director Francis Collins called on pastors to persuade their congregations to follow the government’s guidelines. Collins told Wheaton College dean Ed Stetzer, “I want to exhort pastors once again to try to use your credibility with your flock to put forward the public health measures that we know can work.” Basham also quoted Rick Warren from an interview with Collins: “One of the responsibilities of faith leaders is to tell people to…trust the science. They’re not going to put out a vaccine that’s going to hurt people.”1

Why is Francis Collins telling me how to do my job as a pastor? I don’t tell him how to do his job. I don’t tell him how to use gain of function research to create a deadly virus and allow that virus to leak out. I don’t tell him how to fund research that uses tissue from aborted babies and research performed on aborted babies. Why does he tell me how to do my job?

I understand why the civil magistrate would attempt to co-opt the church to serve as its public relations mouthpiece, but why are some pastors willing to go along with it? Why are they willing to follow “Thus saith the Lord” with “Thus saith the NIH”? Nowhere in Scripture is the pastor commanded to serve as a spokesman for Caesar. The pastor’s duty is to ‘preach the word’ (1 Tim 4:2) and declare the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He is not ordained to preach the government’s current public health protocol. The preaching of the Word of God must not be corrupted with man-made doctrine. Jesus quoted from Isaiah in warning the Pharisees: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9; Mark 7:7).

Our Reformed confessions faithfully summarize the Bible’s teaching on the content of preaching. According to Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5, Lord’s Day worship is to include ‘the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word.’ Belgic Confession Article 29 on the Marks of the True Church states: “The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel.” No mention is made in the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity of the pastor serving as a mouthpiece for the civil magistrate during the Lord’s Day sermon.

Preaching government talking points not only violates God’s command to preach the Word, it jeopardizes the pastor’s credibility. As they listen to each sermon, how can the congregation determine if he’s shilling for the government or actually preaching the Word of God? What does the pastor do when the current government guidelines contradict the previous guidelines? The pastor who preaches the Bible never has to worry that the sermon passage from six months ago will contradict the sermon passage today. Science is always developing, but Scripture never changes. Isaiah 40:8 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

The pastor’s duty is not to promote public health. Of course, we want to be good stewards of our bodies. Humans are made in the image of God. The human body is created good; it has value and dignity. We do not want to abuse our bodies, but care for them as gifts from God. But if the pastor’s duty is to “put forward the public health measures that we know can work,” as Collins says, why limit it to vaccines and masks? Why not preach about exercising, losing weight, having a healthy diet, taking Vitamin D, etc.? According to the CDC, the “risk of severe illness from COVID-19 increases sharply with higher BMI [Body Mass Index].” Why doesn’t Collins encourage pastors to preach against obesity?

In telling pastors what to preach, Collins is violating his sphere of authority as a member of the civil government. His role as a member of the governing authority is to be “a servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Rather than determine the content of preaching, the magistrate is to remove ‘every obstacle of the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship’ (Belgic Confession, art. 36). Westminster Confession of Faith 23.3: ‘Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.’ Collins interferes in matters of faith when he instructs pastors what to preach. Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.” A pastor who preaches the NIH’s talking points is binding the consciences of his hearers with the commandments of men.

What is the role of the civil magistrate with regard to Lord’s Day worship? Andrew Melville, minister in the Church of Scotland, addressed King James VI in 1596 as “God’s silly vassal” and informed him that, in the kingdom of the church, James was “not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member.”2 Rather than tell pastors what to preach, Francis Collins should find a true church that ‘engages in the pure preaching of the gospel’ (Belgic Confession, art. 29), sit quietly in the pew, and be fed by the Word of God, just like every other church member. When he faces his final breath, he will not take comfort in his pastor’s preaching of NIH talking points. He will be grateful for a pastor who preached the whole counsel of God, rather than the commandments of men.

©Dan Borvan. All Rights Reserved.


1 My point is not to question the efficacy of the government’s protocol against COVID (vaccines, cloth masks, etc.). I am not qualified to opine on those matters, and you can make up your own mind. I am qualified to address the duty of a pastor.

2 Thomas McCrie, Life of Andrew Melville, 2 volumes (Edinburgh, 1824), i. 91–92.


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  1. I love your no nonsense take, Dan. It reminds me of a friend who was a high school coach. After listening patiently to a parent describe several ways he could improve his coaching, he got out a pen and paper and asked what time she got to her office in the morning. She asked why and he said, “you’ve given me so many great ideas, I’d like to return the favor by showing you a couple of things you can do to improve at your job.” The parent misunderstood her role. She overreached by assuming her authority over her kid included directing playing time and making sure her kid scored enough points.

    In my opinion, pastors are free, if not obligated, to do the same. Shepherding the flock rightly includes telling government officials who give improper guidance by overstepping their sphere of influence to take a hike – always decently and in order, of course.

  2. This seems to assume you’re an evangelical influencer. When will P&R stop thinking they’re evangelicals?

    But that aside, take a breath. I don’t think anyone is telling you what to preach. It’s simply a political attempt to get some of the worst behaving sub-groups to think better about what it means to be good citizens in the face of an exceptional social situation. These points about spheres, etc. are good, but it seem completely misplaced. Instead, this kind of post reveals more about the libertarian impulses in our circles than our 2k understandings and using those categories to make political views sound pious.

    • Zrim,

      The feds used evangelical influencers the way they use TikTok influencers to get out their public health message and evangelicals, including preachers, from the pulpit, went along with it. They aren’t legislating what preachers were to say (yet) but they were deliberately seeking to use the visible, institutional church to civil ends.

      You should appreciate a reminder that the church is not an arm of the civil magistrate. Both the church and the state need this reminder.

  3. I also don’t understand the outrage here. In the abstract, if there’s a specific population that is resisting a low-cost and effective public health intervention in a public health emergency, we would want public health authorities to reach out to that population any way they can. (Feel free to disagree with the premises there as applied to vaccines).

    You don’t have to say yes or even take their call. I don’t like a government official telling my pastor what their duty is, or what to preach, and some of the language may be poorly chosen (I am unwilling to pay 99 cents to read the full Daily Wire article), but I don’t see a problem with a request. Perhaps I don’t understand exactly what they were asking.

    I would also think pastors would want to be informed on the issue and be able to give advice when asked. I presume most are familiar with arguments related to vaccine development using stem cell lines. I understand you may have some subject matter expertise on ethics and not on public health or medicine, but I don’t think any particular expertise is needed here to give good advice. The author is aware that obesity is a big risk factor for COVID–that should inform the advice he gives to parishioners if asked.

    The link here is tenuous, but I would also think pastors would be very much interested in doing whatever they can to get mask requirements and distancing restrictions lifted as quickly as possible, even if you already disregard them, and promoting the health of your congregation. I should qualify “whatever they can” there by saying of course it must be consistent with the purpose of the church.

    Is it inappropriate for government officials to ask churches to help respond to natural disasters, like opening up their facilities to families whose homes have been destroyed?

    • Matt,

      This is America. You are entitled to your point of view about the efficacy of the various measures employed by the public health officials in response to Covid. We will know more in the coming years than we do today about whether they worked. Others disagree, however.

      The question goes to the nature of the mission of the church. It is quite simply not in the church’s brief to be shilling for public health or for anything else.

      The church has no right to bind the consciences of believers on matters on which Scripture doesn’t speak and the church doesn’t confess. We call this sola Scriptura. We also call it the doctrine of Christian liberty.

      No wise pastor will be giving medical advice. That’s not his vocation, unless he’s been to medical school he should shut up about medicine and public health in the public or when he’s acting in his capacity as a minister of the gospel. When he is speaking from his office his liberty of speech is strictly curtailed as is the speech of any ambassador. The representative of the USA to Ukraine might think that we should enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine but (as I write) official US policy is not to enforce a no-fly zone. As the official representative of the government of the US, the ambassador may not advocate a policy that contradicts the policy of the US. Ditto for pastors.

      That these “evangelical thought leaders” took the call says something about Big Eva or the Evangelical Industrial Complex. It says something about the seduction of power. It says something about the allure of influence. See Bob Godfrey’s essay on the myth of influence.

      Should a congregation open their facilities to the public in time of emergency? People will disagree on this but I would. That’s not quite the same thing as advocating government health policy. Giving shelter is an act of basic human kindness. Shilling for the government is another thing altogether.

      What about promoting the use of condoms? What other government polices should churches advocate? Where does the list end? Who says so?

      Who ordains ministers? The president of the USA or Christ?

      Where do we see ANYTHING remotely like this in the NT or in the early post-apostolic church? Answer: We don’t. We didn’t begin to see it until Constantine, when the Bishops began to become bootlickers (Eusebius was chief among them. His rhetoric re the emperor is fairly nauseating).

    • > Where do we see ANYTHING remotely like this in the NT

      Well, Paul literally gives medical advice to Timothy, and it’s inspired, so…

    • Dr. Clark, I haven’t previously thanked you for your blog and podcast; they have benefited me greatly. So thanks!

      Perhaps we are just disagreeing over definitions. I don’t think anyone is arguing that pastors should be shills for the government or that pastors should be binding consciences on this issue. Suppose, hypothetically, that the facts were clear that the vaccines were safe and effective and the primary opposition was a millenialist conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates and the mark of the Beast – would you adhere to the same principle and refuse to speak if a government official asked? Would you refrain from giving advice if a parishioner came to you for advice? Do you say, “look, this conspiracy theory is nonsense, but I can’t give you medical advice,” even if you sincerely believe that the parishioner will be better off one way or the other?

      I would think that a pastor gives advice all the time without binding consciences, and that he could do so while making clear that he isn’t binding the conscience. (Is a pastor binding consciences about education decisions when he posts something on social media about the dangers of public school?)

      Another hypothetical: local school board official comes to you and says they’re seeing a dramatic increase in suicides at the local high school, could you please say something to your youth and parents? You are not a government shill if you oblige; you might even preach a sermon on the subject that is completely faithful to the word and gospel. Does a consistent principle of “government, stay in your lane” mean you don’t listen to what the school board official has to say? You can listen without granting or conceding or even implying any authority to the government over church matters.

      I’m just having trouble drawing the distinctions here. Well, it does seem fairly trivial to distinguish between messages that are clearly contrary to the Word, like those involving condoms, and those that aren’t, most of the time. Where does it end, you ask? Who says so? The pastor and elders. I don’t see a danger of the church getting co-opted or too chummy with the state in something like this. If the pastor thinks a message or emphasis is unnecessary, sinful, or divisive, then fine, don’t participate. If a message is truly beneficial to the congregation and consistent with Scripture, the pastor can still decide that it is not appropriate for a worship service.

      (btw, the link to the written article at the page you linked to about the myth of influence is not working — I suspect I would agree with the article, though )

    • Dr. Clark,
      I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean. It seems to me that I Timothy 5:23 is a specific instruction for a specific medical condition, not a generalized aphorism.

      I’m confused about some of your other responses, but Matt Hauser has already asked better follow-up questions than I can. Thanks in advance for your answers to him.

    • Or perhaps:
      It is right and proper to reject any attempt by the state to claim authority over ecclesial matters. We all agree on that.

      But is that the main objection of this article, or is it over the substantive content of the requested messages? I see quite a distinction between the state saying “It is your duty to …” and “Please help us with …”; the latter respects the authority and independence of the church and acknowledges its role in the community. The article and some comments seem to lead with rejecting the former, then proceed to reflexively reject the latter as well.

  4. Scott, first, I’m unaware of any government entity attempting this with any OPC agency. I assume the same of the URCNA. So why are you bothered? There seems to be an assumption here that when the government speaks to evangelicals it’s also speaking to us. But we’re not evangelicals. Evangelicalism is completely bankrupt, not least due to the confusion of faith and politics. It’s actually a voting block, as in “the evangelical vote.” I’ve never heard of the Reformed and Presbyterian vote and for what I assume is good reason, i.e. we’re not poilticized (at the moment). So it makes sense for the government to seek their help. They’ve wanted to become a political phenomenon. So why are you protecting them for a natural result of becoming so? Don’t like the government getting on you guys like this? Well, that’s what happens when you politicize yourself.

    Second, even if they did, Matt is correct. It’s simply a way for those responsible for national health to request some help. You can say no and just leave it at that. You don’t need to push all the 2k buttons and use a reminder of those principles as a pre-text to demonstrate a political opinion on mandates. What’s wrong about teaching the congregation some Luther on plague (see link)?

    You think that’s a way for a pastor to give medical advice? C’mon. Luther had no problem instructing on the responsibilities of the faithful to disease. That you do seems to suggest you’re thinking more like a libertarian than a 2k Protestant.

    “Should a congregation open their facilities to the public in time of emergency? People will disagree on this but I would. That’s not quite the same thing as advocating government health policy. Giving shelter is an act of basic human kindness. Shilling for the government is another thing altogether.”

    Oops. So you’re good with promoting basic human kindness during, say, a tyrannical invasion, but when it comes to masks you’re averse? How arbitrary. The tyranny of a despot justifies promoting basic human kindness, but the tyranny of a rampaging disease makes you squirm? Who can follow you?

    Your slippery slope argument is tortured (what’s next, condoms?). This is an exceptional national instance. Nobody is asking for some help on Covid so that they can follow it up with condoms, etc. in ordinary times. The only way anyone would be gullible enough to take your point are the already convinced anti-government set. You’re giving itching ears what they want to hear. That’s not hard.

    • Zrim,

      Remarkably, people beyond the OPC and URCNA are able to access the HB via this crazy thing called the internet.

      The episode is a good reminder of the two spheres of God’s kingdom, hence the apt quote from Melville. As you may know, not everyone, even those in NAPARC, is aware of the category: “twofold kingdom.”

      Yes, it was not unknown for ministers in times past not only to give medical advice but to practice medicine. Some German Reformed ministers used to set bones etc. It was perhaps necessary, insofar as the minister might be the only person in the village with any education, but it’s not necessary now and not a good idea. I have a pretty good idea of what the average seminarian knows. Medicine is not normally in his tool kit.

      As to the extent of the virus etc that’s debated. I doubt we know now or that we will know soon. I think, like Matt, you’re assuming things that have to be demonstrated.

  5. Wait – this article isn’t from the Onion or the Babylon Bee?

    That would be my initial take, frankly. A pastor says starts out his “I won’t be a mouthpiece for the government” article by acting as a mouthpiece for the “lab research gone awry” conspiracy theorists? You couldn’t come up with better satire.

    • Philip, I think you missed the whole premise and instead focused on one component that you disagree with. (A worthwhile and acceptable thing to disagree with, I may add.) However, see footnote one. The author goes further than needed to make it clear that this was not his intent or point. Could it have been display of personal views on that particular matter? Sure but it wouldn’t change the argument if not present.

  6. To those arguing contra Dan, I suppose you’re okay with preachers binding the conscience of their congregants with any political information then? ZRim, your initial argument appears to be coming from a narrow minded place of “well my denomination doesn’t have this problem so it’s not an issue worth discussing.” It’s fine to hold that view if you were proprietor of the HB and even if this was an OPC only site. Part of the HB’s purpose is to draw people to see reformed and confessional theology-a resource to those inside and OUTSIDE NAPARC. Dan’s point is ever relevant to professing believers. To shill government messaging is to serve State above God. As staunch of a 2K adherent as you proclaim to be (as demonstrated by the outlandish criticism of a statement written by a Reformed Seminary professor amidst bombs literally falling around him), you seem to be A Okay with a minister of a true church (I.e., one displaying the marks) being pulpit puppets of the government. Confessional or not, that is a big problem. The uproar here is quite strange.

    A last point I will add is that the argument later proposed is as if there was no agenda or politicizing going on which is quite contrary to the facts as they continue to be revealed. (I.e., emails trying to suppress voices and information) Again proving this post to be justifiable and relevant. How tragic it is that an individual may have heard shaky physical health advice to the exclusion of hearing words of life for their Spiritual health. Equally abhorrent is the tragedy of a pastor speaking the opposite points of view regarding the pandemic to the exclusion of the Gospel. Again I fail to see anything wrong here nor anything libertarian.

  7. Yes, we need to distinguish between the two kingdoms and affirm their respective spheres of authority. Perhaps I am objecting to something not in the article. But the two kingdoms do stand in complete isolation from each other, just as we know that spiritual, mental, and physical health do not stand in opposition to each other. I am objecting to the proposition that all messages encouraged by the government necessarily violate two kingdoms. Maybe no one thinks that. Pastors are obviously concerned with the physical health of their congregants–they do hospital visits.

    • Matt,

      I agree that the two spheres (I would rather use Calvin’s expression, “twofold kingdom”) are not hermetically sealed. On the HB writers discuss the real world in which we live. Witness the essay today by Fedor Minakov. We discuss the world and the culture so often that I have had to defend the propriety of doing do more than once.

      Still, this seems like a fairly clear-cut case.

      As an ambassador for Christ, as he is speaking from his office as minister, from the pulpit, a minister has no authority to repeat government talking points. His only mandate is to preach the Word of God. Period.

      We are body and soul. For the body we see a physician. For the soul, we see a minister.

      Sure, the minister prays for the physical well being of his people but, as I keep saying, when he starts giving medical advice we do well to ignore him.

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